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Works in Progress: Objects and Life-as-art

October 17, 2010

Anselm Kiefer, "Gesamtkunstwerk", Barjac, FranceScene from a production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" with set and projection by William Kentridge
[Description: Left, a view of basically Anselm Kiefer’s backyard in France, where he has built what he calls a “gesamtkunstwerk” or all-over artwork of teetering concrete towers and stacks of oversize lead-paged books. Right, a scene from a recent production of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” with sets and animated projections by (my total fave) William Kentridge. The stage is mostly dark, and the Queen of the Night is centered under a spotlight while projected moving drawings suggestive of astronomical maps swirl around her.]

The best thing for me about living in Southern California is visiting the off-beat monuments and quirky establishments scattered around the region, the products of idiosyncratic individualists and the markers of frequently bizarre twists of history that seem only possible here, in a landscape marked by extremes and by great mediocrity. Some of these strange landmarks deservedly garner MacArthur grants; others of great significance struggle to stay standing and stay open. I’m going to talk about two places I have visited recently.

Objects have their own kind of histories and it is a real and rare pleasure to visit artworks in situ. In the case of these monuments, the object is actually merged with the place — and the place is continually in process (of expansion, or of decay), and the process is so idiosyncratic that it is merged with the person(a) creating it.

It is worth thinking once in a while about the factors inherent in objects — besides their “goodness” or quality — that contributed to their being appropriated or adopted as art at certain historical moments. Size and portability, permanence, similarities to established fine art categories like painting and sculpture, investment with spiritual or important cultural meaning… all these things carry value judgments in addition to determining whether an object can fit (literally and figuratively) in a museum or other fine-art setting. To become art (in a conventional sense) an object must be displayed, and to be displayed it must be in a suitable size and format for the art-viewing mechanisms we have, and preferably be salable. (Even installation art, which is praised for being un-monetizeable and un-migrateable, can still be billed by art instutitions as an exclusive experience.)

There may be many reasons why the two sites that I visited have not been embraced as art, despite their evident status as their creators’ masterworks.


Salvation Mountain

Salvation MountainSalvation Mountain

[Description: Left, a round, tall structure made out of hay bales, with multi-colored paint and Bible verse designations written on it. Right, a hillside, topped by a cross, covered in bright, glossy colors, shapes, and messages, including “God Is Love.”]

Out in the remote, flat, very hot desert near the Salton Sea, Leonard Knight lives alone (but not wanting for visitors) in a converted truck parked at the base of his hand-sculpted, paint-straw-and-adobe Earthwork.

Nearby towns are composed of mobile homes in small fenced-in squares of dirt; there is no real economy that I can see. A woman with two teacup dogs is selling a self-published history of the area from her yard in Niland. It is ponderously, excessively hot.

Salvation Mountain

[Description: 3 detail views of painted and sculpted surfaces of Salvation Mountain, with flowers, Biblical messages, and graphic blue stripes representing a waterfall down the slope of the hillside.]

It feels important to have a kind of purposeful narrative when you’re faced with such a massive and unending project. Knight has a message of love, an aptitude for living simply, and a serious kind of tenacity. A lifelong loner and army veteran who got religion at the age of 36, He has been working on Salvation Mountain for thirty years. Knight’s only creative experience previous to the mountain was painting some cars and the creation of a giant handsewn hot air balloon (aquired by the Folk Art Museum). The simplicity of his mission (and seemingly of the man himself) is a major part of the appeal, because the product is so remote and bizarre and outsized compared to the retold, simplified story of the man. The naive, lumpy and joyful qualities of the work are intensified by their monochrome, impoverished, desert surroundings.


Nit Wit Ridge
Nit WIt RidgeNit Wit Ridge
[Description: Left, the front facade of Nit Wit Ridge, with three levels and verandahs, each level made of different materials, including arches of stone, wood siding painted green, and corrugated plastic. Right, decoration inside the kitchen includes formal pink wallpaper, a print of peaches, and old advertisement posters, including one for 7-up.]

Begun in 1928, construction on Art Beal’s residence continued until he was removed from it into a nursing home. As the garbage collector for Cambria, CA and as the owner of a small sloping lot, Beal had access to a range of scavenged building materials, conventional and un-, that he put to use on a multi-story residence filled with beauty (walls and arches lined with dozens of abalone shells from the local canning operation) and sad humor (his and hers facing toilets, though Beal lived alone, left by his wife). The house’s proximity to Hearst Castle is the source of puns and comparisons throughout the guided tour. The house is considered an eyesore by many in the area.
Nit Wit RidgeNit Wit Ridge

[Description: Left, a multi-colored tile and abalone shell backsplash over the outdoor stovetop. Right, uneven concrete steps leading up to the entrance of the house are faced with abalone shells.]

The overwhelming, encouraging feeling radiating from these sites is this: If you want to make something, just make it. With whatever you have around. Nevermind safety and propriety, nevermind poverty, screw gravity even. Don’t let these conventional obstacles stop you. When asked why he built the sparkling openwork Watts Towers, Simon Rodia responded, “Why I build it?  I can’t tell you. Why a man make the pants? Why a man make the shoes?”

The “why” of creative work has been a topic of ongoing discussion in my household for a while now: whom are we trying to answer when we talk about why we make? How “far down” do we have to go with that question: why make this line blue, or why make anything at all? A lot of these processes are a little bit mysterious, which I think is good. Another thing I appreciate about these projects — which really transcend the categories of “folk art” and “site-specific” or any of that — is that the “why” of them is acknowledged in an honest, unaffected way.

I’m not really sure.
I have this message I think is important.
I wanted to make something big so I did.


This is not really the focus of my response to these sites, but since I’ve mentioned a number of projects by men, let’s look at visionary art practice through the lens of gender for a second. Most materials I have found on women and folk art center on women’s traditional domestic production: needlework, quilting, and among upper-class women, appropriate lady accomplishments like watercolor painting. It’s less art than it is “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong, the products of all this labor are demonstrably awesome. And in terms of collecting and establishing the legacies of women artists, folk art-focused outfits have a notable advantage over high-art establishments — the normal issues of access (to education, art materials, art community, etc) and institutional biases don’t apply in the same ways.

Late 19th Cent. Crazy Quilt, Unknown Artist, Folk Art Museum [Description: A virtuoso crazy quilt, with mostly red, blue, neutral, and black patches, some with symbols, flowers, flags, and even little portraits in them, and a central larger applique with a chicken (?). It’s roughly square and has a fan pattern made of thin radiating strips in each corner.]

Social or economic conditions that contribute to folk artists’ outsider status are too often glossed over or romanticized (or both at once).  Choices of hobbies and pastimes are results of social strictures and economic forces, and this is one of the ways that objects are carriers of our cultural histories. For women historically, artistic expression (and most activities) followed conventions of propriety and developed skills needed for wife- and motherhood; in other words, it was (unpaid) work done for the family unit. Nevertheless, although women’s work was devalued and the subjects and media of that work rather severly limited, well-executed pieces, whether functional or decorative, added prestige to a household and demonstrate that women used these art forms as a means of creative expression throughout their lives.

Relatedly, it’s less common for women to be solitary, unenmeshed, un-responsible-to-others like these masculine counterparts I’ve mentioned who have no demand for utility for their handiwork. Quilts and things are fundamentally different from large-scale, sited, functionless works like Salvation Mountain (which are perhaps fundamentally different from the large-scale, sited, functionless artworks I showed at the top).

On the other hand, creativity is creativity, folks!

(Perhaps the people who are lucky enough to collect or curate art assume that men and women in all times have had as much control over their lives and free time as they do. Sort of conversely, perhaps one reason we so much admire those artists who struck out on their own is that we feel that we don’t have that ability to direct our own lives.)


Further reading:

Salvation Mountain website
New York’s Folk Art Museum exhibition of women artists
Watts Towers website
Raw Vision Magazine (note: I think “outsider art,” which is used prominently here, is kind of an insidious term and not preferred)
Salton Sea and desert books: Greetings from the Salton Sea, photographs by Kim Stringfellow; Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low Down California, by William DeBuys and Joan Myers; Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner


Coincidence? Yinka Shonibare and 18th Century women intellectuals

June 6, 2010

What I want to suggest is that there is no such thing as a natural signifier, that the signifier is always constructed… Yinka Shonibare, Bomb Magazine, Fall 2005

I recently saw a Yinka Shonibare piece, The Age of Enlightenment – Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Bretruil (2008), at 21C Museum in Louisville. Like his other well-known works, it’s a life-size fiberglass mannequin, outfitted in elaborate 17th-Century costume, but rather than brocade and velvet, the costume is made of the cacophonous colors of Dutch wax printed cotton. The technique of wax batik cloth dying originates in Indonesia; Dutch colonizers brought it to Europe, where it was scaled up to industrial production in order to be exported to the African colonies. Today wax prints, many still manufactured in Europe, are synonymous with African dress. A colonial invention, Dutch wax fabric is nevertheless a sign of “authentic” African identity, and Shonibare’s use of it revisits colonial history and points out that the identity and authenticity are not fixed but “fabricated” (heh). Shonibare has discussed these figures in terms of carnival and masquerade traditions, in which the poor can pretend to be rich and the rich poor for a day or two.

Here are some terrible photos I took of the artwork with my phone (it’s placed in front of two Shonibare photographs that reconstruct/revise Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters):

The Age of Enlightenment The Age of Enlightenment

So, here is the picture on which the figure is based, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour:

Read more…

Barely peripherally related blogaround – Art, Ethics, shared space, shared culture

May 16, 2010
Mary Kelly Flashing

Mary Kelly, Flashing Nipple Remix

Art 21 Blog: Must Art Be Ethical?

Edward Winkleman: You can’t take it with you, so it’s about what you leave.

Rebecca Solnit: When the Media is the Disaster (this is a bit older, but I heard her speak at a panel recently at the LA Times Festival of Books, where she discussed some of the same points of imagery, media, semantics, and ethics.)

Amanda Hess: But if you’re wearing a veil, how will I know you’re smiling, baby?

Michael Kimmelman: Who Draws the Borders of Culture?

Retiring “juxtaposition,” Living More Honestly?

March 2, 2010

A couple months ago I read Johanna Drucker’s book Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (2005), and also saw her speak at UCLA (not on this topic, but still).

In the interest of not writing a huge long book report, I will try to stick to just the main thesis. But Drucker also talks about a lot, A LOT of artists, which is great. She summarizes Benjamin and Adorno, opticality and visuality, and the politics of visual pleasure and whether it’s allowed, in ways that were really accessible and useful to me. (She also writes some things about “slacker aesthetics” that I found very gratifying, but that still convinced me it’s a legit movement, as well as some very gratifying things about Lisa Yuskavage, who should maybe be the subject of a whole other post).

The book is kind of inflammatory. Sweet Dreams‘ basic premise is that while artists and theorists generally pretend, at least in their intellectual formulations, to be separated from and indifferent to commercial mass culture – even in exercises of appropriation and irony – most contemporary artists actually are working in a way that recognizes their relations to power and culture, relations that are complicated and contradictory. Fine art is, in Drucker’s view, complicit with mass culture and free market economies both in its content (theories and subject matter) and in its very existence, the way it is able to function as objects of culture that generate symbolic value. When we experience a piece of artwork, we don’t respond to the thing only in itself, in a vacuum, as if it simply offered up unequivocal meaning that we have only to receive (one more reason for writing off Modernism). Rather, art images are part of the vast context of other images, fine art to vernacular, past to present; aesthetic values, production values, and high consumability communicate in the languages of our shared cultural reference library.

Symbolic discourses in fine art are not just about form and practice, but are also part of broader cultural discourses, like identity, history, and place. The values sustained in specialized art practices – individual thought and autonomy, fetishized labor – are the same values that undergird the consumption-based, display-driven free-market mass culture. In many cases, fine art is only distinguishable from mass culture by the conditions of its consumption (location in a gallery, cost, presentation, etc.), the cues and codes that establish it as having some symbolic value.

Duchamp Boite-en-valise

A Duchamp "Boite-en-valise," a travel-size compendium of his most famous works

Drucker writes that the models of thought that often succeed in the art world, those which are self-characterized as radical, are in fact fairly old hat and are used to minimize or hide careerism of artists (said more neutrally, the desire to make money from what you do). Rather than being a neutral third party who can comment on our culture from outside it, as this negatively-positioned language would suggest, the art world is “embedded in the very value systems that the avant garde was traditionally supposed to oppose.” (20) (It’s important to say “supposed to,” since even the engineers of this oppositional avant-garde sensibility were a bit compromised, e.g. Duchamp supposedly tearing down aura and auratic original works while at the same time conscientiously building the Duchamp brand.) Ergo, “My work is a critique of…” and the overuse of “transgressive” and “subversive,” etc. And the inability or unwillingness among art world types to acknowledge this situation and to address it honestly and critically represents, according to Drucker, a failure of imagination and widespread cowardice. Read more…

Thoughts on Bamako, Bienniales, Bread and Butter

November 23, 2009

The eighth edition of the biennial Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie is currently on display in various venues around Bamako. Wish I were there.

The announcement and call for entries express a desire to expand the exhibitions’ audience. (I am happy to report that the curators are both women, Tunisian and Italian, respectively, and about a third of the artists are women.) But at least one Malian artist thinks that the presence of the art event alone is not enough to stimulate the Malian climate for photography. In my experience, Malians participation is low not merely because of disinterest — although that is significant in a region largely lacking a cultural framework in which making pictures makes sense — but because Malians unassociated with foreign/Mali government sponsors are deliberately excluded from events, even by Malian hosts.  This happened to friends right in front of me in 2007. It was a strong signal about who this art is for.

Installation View of S. Dicko's World Mosaic

Installation view of S. Dicko's "World Mosaic"


Like many cultural initiatives in Mali, this one’s sponsorship is part Malian government, part European government(s), part NGO, and part corporate (Puma).  In some ways, exhibitions like this are of a piece with the  historic and ongoing discovery (and/or pillage) narrative, in which curators (explorers) journey to Bamako to find new artists (natives) to take back and show off. Comment threads on articles announcing the biennial are populated by European curators, photo editors, non-profit directors, and so on looking to “meet interesting photographers” during their trip to Bamako. I’ve written many words about patronage in other settings; suffice to say the undertones are evidently problematic.

But shouldn’t it be celebrated that people and institutions are interested in meeting those interesting African photographers? Given the very, very limited exhibition, information-sharing, and market structures for artists of all stripes in many African cities, outside involvement is necessary and positive.

Then again, shouldn’t some fraction of the money and energy going into this international event for the viewing pleasure of an international audience be committed to inculcating a local audience for this art bizness?! I’m not saying this biennial shouldn’t exist just because it isn’t perfectly egalitarian and saving the whole world right now. I am very much in favor of any event that promotes African artists in an international conversation. I’m just saying that the contrast between its crowd and its setting should be more straightforwardly addressed by everyone involved and that the situation could open up good discussion and lead to some productive changes. (And not about modernizing anything or anyone so that they can appreciate art. How about making some art that people, as they are, like?) Read more…

Speed-Appreciation, or Chardin

August 5, 2009

How To Visit a museum

I read the recent piece in the NYT about how no one stops and actually looks at things in museums. Pausing instead just long enough to snap a photo (increasingly with unnecessarily professional-grade cameras), the crowds breeze through the hallowed halls. Edward Winkleman touched on it, encouraging a museum-sketching flashmob sort of event. Some of the original piece struck me as a little “kids these days” in tone, but the gist of it was right on, and the fact that Michael Kimmelman, the author, began a project of sketching monuments and such struck a chord (I am not a good sketcher). He ends the piece with a charming anecdote of girls in the Louvre enjoying a lingering, non-label-reading, playful engagement with the artworks.

Also last week, I read a really lovely quotation of Diderot in an essay by Arthur Danto on Chardin: “One stops in front of a Chardin as if by instinct, just as a traveller exhausted by his trip tends to sit down, almost without knowing it, in a place that is green, quiet, well-watered, shady, and cool.” * One can imagine just how it would feel, after wandering through halls of large  melodramatic history paintings in a Salon, to arrive at a picture that, almost magically, returns you to something that you know to be important, something both familiar and transformed, immediate, and treasured.

from wikimedia

from wikimedia. Un Canard col-vert attaché à la muraille, et une bigarade. ca. 1730

So I began to think about why people go to museums and how we behave in them, and I reflected a little on some experiences I’ve had doing some slow looking and engaging with artworks. The question of why go to museums, and its over-question, “Why do we even have them,” is a (many) book-length problem, involving ideas of curiosities, conquest, world exploration, Eurocentrism, and many different philosophies about humankind’s achievements. Museums house our national and “world cultural” treasures (those that can be removed to museums, anyway), and receive support from governments and many prestigious institutions and people in order to preserve and sometimes display these things. Limiting the question to art museums, today’s visitors, and the actual visiting, what’s the point? To get cultured? To kill time? To show evidence of our taste, class, and intelligence? To actually learn? to appreciate the past, or other places/peoples, or the present? Read more…

William Kentridge: a moralist, but a playful one

May 4, 2009


Scene from The Magic Flute with design and projection by Kentridge. Image from

Scene from The Magic Flute with design and projection by Kentridge. Image from

I’ve had my second visit to William Kentridge’s somewhat giant retrospective “Five Themes” at SFMOMA. Both grandiose and unassuming, comic and sublime, it’s all opera and processions and grand theater that always come back to drawing, slow and messy charcoal drawing. I’ll cover two of the five themes here.

Stills from the studio films. Image from

Stills from the studio films. Image from

I loved the way he went about visualizing himself in the studio (a series of short films dedicated to early filmmaker George Méliès), in the act of creation, with a mixture of gravitas, nostalgia, and silliness, using the visual jokes of early animation and silent film. The tape runs in reverse, and the artist plucks pages out of the air, catches books floating up from the ground, even repairs (and becomes) a torn charcoal self-portrait. In another, a coffee cup “jumps” out of the artist’s reach as he tries to pour into it. The coffee pot becomes a spaceship, landing the artist on a hostile planet. He asks us to play along with his grainy, gently slapstick humor, these unsophisticated, humble attempts to represent the creative process. It’s as if he says, “Look, I really don’t know how else to do this, so I’m just going to try, ok?” This is how we are: ambitious, imaginative, but always fumbling. 

Read more…